Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Day at the...Where?

I've now lived long enough to be able to report on the demise of the Times Square I've always known.

I wonder if this what someone had in mind, or, like many things, it is an unintended consequence.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beat the Clock

Even as small as an obituary that appeared today for Joan A. Stanton, 94, Radio Voice of Lois Lane can be cleverly written as well as informative.

Lois Lane, from the Superman series is described as the "intrepid but perpetually imperiled reporter." The writer, Bruce Weber, has definitely been raised on Superman.

A 1943 picture of Joan at a Mutual Broadcasting microphone clearly gives you the impression she certainly had the looks for Lois Lane. That she didn't play her in the television series is wholly another story, I'm sure.

But Mr. Weber sneaks in a fact between his dashes. The radio Superman was played by Bud Collyer. And he leaves it at that.

All those years of watching Beat the Clock as a kid, emceed by Bud Collyer...who knew? Even a similarly aged friend of mine who grew up in Manhattan and whose family was entertainment connected, didn't know Bud Collyer was Superman. Talk about clever disguises.

By all measurements, Bud Collyer as a television Superman would not have made it. Truth, justice, and the American way would not have advanced. You have to thank those producers, whoever they were.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Roman Lettering

Everything comes from somewhere. Or somebody. This blog attempts to acknowledge that whenever it can. It's part of the "mission statement."

Why certain things stay in your mind can be a mystery. I can never remember what the curtains looked like that my wife just took down when she does her seasonal thing. But I do remember sometime in the 1960s when David Merrick, the theater producer of a certain temperament (he once made Carol Channing pay for Dolly's shoes that she wore outside the theater to a party.) who took out newspaper ads quoting people who just happened to have the same names as New York's tight circle of theater critics, telling the readership that a critically panned show was "Wonderful," "Couldn't stop laughing," "The music was terrific." Hype, hype, hype. Bull, bull, bull.

I don't remember all the names, but Walter Kerr was surely one of them, maybe Douglas Watts; they all "loved" the show. It was quickly revealed as a hoax. An embryonic version of the Clifford Irving biography of Howard Hughes. Merrick, it turns out, along with his press agent, took the names from the phone book. Whether they ever got the people to really say those things, I don't remember. Quite a fuss was made over it.

Of course in those days there were at least eight New York dailies to take the ads out in. How, or why they even accepted the advertising has to speak volumes about someone's powers of persuasion. And it turns out, that someone just passed away.

Lee Solters, 89, Razzle-Dazzle Press Agent

The obituary doesn't say so, but Lee sounds to me like the guy who was trying to get advertising in elevators over the blinking floor numbers that everyone looks at, rather than make personal eye contact. Someone described that space as the most coveted of all advertising space.

As recently as 2000 it is reported he got Pope John Paul II to be named as an honorary Harlem Globetrotter before 50,000 people in Saint Peter's Square.

Over 45 years ago I toured Europe with an uncle and cousin and remembered the lettering inside St. Peter's around the nave. It was of course quite high up, and I distinctly remember the tour guide telling us that the letters were seven feet high, a height I thought was incredible to be looking up at.

I wonder what Lee thought.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Signpost Up Ahead

"Dying is the one thing--perhaps the only thing--in life that you don't have to do," Edwin Shneidman once wrote. "Stick around long enough and it will be done for you."

And at 91, he was right.

Edwin S. Shneidman, a psychologist who gave new direction to the study of suicide and was a founder of the nation's first comprehensive suicide prevention center, died Friday at his home in Los Angeles. His death was confirmed by his son, David.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Green Green Grass of Home

There aren't many people who rate a news item obituary in the New York Times. Even fewer who rate news coverage of their funeral. But Austin Delaney was obviously an exception.

His name was familiar to me from The Racing Form. It would appear in the upper left portion of a horse's past performance, as the owner of horses, usually trained by Leo O'Brien, a competent trainer, generally turf horses, who won a good share of races at the Big Three, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. I remember when Leo O'Brien was a steeplechase rider in new York who had a reputation for hanging out in 2nd Avenue emporiums along with Jerry Fishback, another stepplechaser. In that long ago era there were even jump races at Aqueduct, and those two would be in them. I have programs with their names as the riders.

Leo doesn't look like he'd coax a horse over the fences these days. I can suspect he and Austin might have first met at some place on 2nd Avenue where there was a liquor license hanging in the window. Or maybe in Ireland. I never met either one of them.

Today's news story barely mentioned the horses, but they had to be big part of Austin's life. We have sod and green here, but I'm sure for Austin the grass is greener back home.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Not All Created Equal

An element of the contemporary obituary is the zinger, or something called the stinging telegraph. Marilyn Johnson describes these in her popular book The Dead Beat as a deadpan joke, or juxtaposition. All zingers are not created equal. Some belong in the Hall of Fame.

Take today's obituary on Jay C. Smith, a person who was convicted of murder but later freed. No, it wasn't DNA evidence. The obituary is singularly interesting because it is not about what you might expect.

Mr. Smith was a onetime high school principal who veered off into several episodes of crime, all of which make his conviction for armed robbery of a Sears store seem like a health code violation.

Joseph Wambaugh enters Douglas Martin's terrific tale as the writer he is who wrote a book about Mr. Smith and the belief that the man was guilty of some grisly things, despite what the courts may have ruled.

Mr. Martin, being an excellent reporter, doesn't take sides. This is obvious. But he does let a Wambaugh quote from an e-mail he received yesterday close the piece: "I do not celebrate the death of any man, but Satan does. A No. 1 draft pick has finally arrived."


Thursday, May 14, 2009


L. William Seidman, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has just passed away at 88. He wasn't the chairman of the F.D.I.C. when I was a kid in the 1950s, but his passing makes me think about that Federal agency whose emblem I would see at every teller's window when my mother took me with her to the bank.

In those days, F.D.I.C. insured savings account depositors up to $10,000, a thoroughly astounding sum of money to me. And that was per account. The fact that someone might actually have two accounts (or more), each insured for up to $10,000, was outside the realm of my solar system. Out there beyond the planet Pluto. If there were people like that, I'm sure we didn't know them.

But there it was. Some kind of embedded notice on the counter where you put your transaction with the teller. When the winning shares for the World Series were announced after one of the Yankee victories and it was revealed that they would each receive more than $10,000 (but not $11,000) I was dumb-struck. Someone was actually going to get more money than the F.D.I.C. would insure in one account! (Taxes hadn't yet entered into my equations.)

That meant that Yogi Berra was going to be one of those people who needed two accounts! The fact that the loser of that World Series was going to get $8,000! was just as astounding to me. They were almost at the maximum--and they lost!

Now, a savings account certainly seems quaint. An insured passbook account that someone wrote entries in is also quaint. But looking for a guarantee certainly hasn't gone out of style.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Who Knew?

Venetia Phair Dies at 90, as a Girl, She Named Pluto.

The Pluto she named was the planet, not the Disney dog. It turns out that in 1930, Venetia, then 11, suggested to an astronomer-connected grandfather that the newly confirmed planet could be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld. Venetia apparently was steeped in planets and classical myths.

Unfortunately, this kind of knowledge didn't come to be used by some.

Vinny "The Chin" Gigante, a mobster who died in a Federal penitentiary in 2005, spent a good deal of his time trying to convince the authorities of his mental incompetence by anonymously shuffling around the streets of Greenwich Village in a bathrobe, slippers and pajamas. Additionally, he was known to take showers using an opened umbrella.

The Feds may not have been able to close in if he spent his time more appropriately dressed as Pluto.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Haband for Men

Even on the eve of Mother's Day, someone will write about their father.

I'm sure I recently read this, likely in an obituary, but perhaps not. I do read other things. There was an observation, or a piece of dialogue about someone who got their pants in the mail. "Why not," they explained, I'm the same size."

There was to me a great line in a Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern movie, The Laughing Policemen, that has Dern making an uncomplimentary observation about a colleague's intelligence when he tells someone that, "what can you expect from someone who gets their pants in the mail."

But why not? The logic can be irrefutable, and anyway, not everyone likes stores. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who confessed that he bought things from Haband. He gets about four pieces of mail a week from them.

Haband. I didn't know they were still around. My father passed away in 1987, and with that change of address we no longer saw the Haband packets that did come three to four times a week. I remember them coming in when I was a kid. They always had a variety of fabric swatches that were intended to make their pants seems irresistible. I don't remember my father ever getting his pants in the mail. I don't even remember him opening the packets that came. As a kid, I did.

My father didn't like to open the mail. He also didn't throw any of it out. He wasn't a letter carrier, so it had nothing to do with not wanting to bring his work home with him. He just plain didn't open much mail.

This is course led to unpaid bills and surely explained why our phone service was constantly interrupted, and once, even our electricity. But my father got up early, and came home late, so it is possible, because it was dark anyway, he didn't really notice the interruptions.

He kept a good deal of his unopened mail in his briefcase, giving it a weekly ride between New York and Washington, D.C. When he was hospitalized toward what would be the end of his life, I had a chance to sort through it, and basically throw a good deal of it out. Haband for Men was well represented.

When my father got out of the hospital and was reunited with his briefcase he remarked how light it felt, and what did I do? I simply told him I didn't think he needed anything from Haband.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Whoever Emerges

There's a freshly painted storefront at 221 East 88th Street in New York, on what is primarily a residential block. It's the kind of storefront I remember as a kid that was once common in New York. A wood frame door and a wooden window sash that juts out a bit from the entrance. There is an air conditioner balanced in the transom. The space is small. It looks like something that might have once been a Gypsy fortune telling parlor, or a place where they staged newspapers for Sunday deliveries. A place that would have been used even if the utilities weren't turned on.

Completely empty, the place would look like what Wellington Mara's father Tim would have been talking about when he explained why the $600 he put up for the New York Giants franchise at the start of the NFL was worth it: "Even an empty store with two chairs in it is worth $600 in New York."

But the store is hardly empty. It is filled with people. It is an art gallery, or installation space, if you will. Lined on the walls are selected obituary tributes as published by The Economist. And not just a few. There are well over 300, sheathed in acetate paper and pinned to the walls, reaching up to what I suspect is the artist's reach, given use of a medium size ladder.

The obituaries abut each other on all sides. Wall tile. There is no particular order, certainly not alphabetical, and definitely not chronological. The Economist has been publishing since sometime in the 1850s, but they've only been doing obituaries for less than 20 years. The earliest one spotted was from 1992.

So these are not only the departed, they are the fairly recently departed, from all walks of life; elected, defeated, enlisted, commissioned, employed, unemployed, appointed, self-appointed, widely-known, perhaps not so widely known. All people (and at least one animal) whose lives are summed up in what someone there at last night's opening described as "poetic biographies." Each biography is one magazine page, 1,000 words, with a picture of the subject. Sometimes black and white, sometimes color. All recognizable.

Michael Brod, the artist and owner of the gallery, is a tall, thin, friendly man who emerges from the back to greet visitors and explain a few things. There is a low stone wall that runs along the perimeter of the tiny space. It separates those that are looking back from those that are looking at.

Which one you are depends on you.